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The Stolen Bacillus

"This again," said the Bacteriologist, slipping a glass slide under the
microscope, "is well,--a preparation of the Bacillus of cholera--the
cholera germ."

The pale-faced man peered down the microscope. He was evidently not
accustomed to that kind of thing, and held a limp white hand over his
disengaged eye. "I see very little," he said.

"Touch this screw," said the Bacteriologist; "perhaps the microscope is
out of focus for you. Eyes vary so much. Just the fraction of a turn this
way or that."

"Ah! now I see," said the visitor. "Not so very much to see after all.
Little streaks and shreds of pink. And yet those little particles, those
mere atomies, might multiply and devastate a city! Wonderful!"

He stood up, and releasing the glass slip from the microscope, held it in
his hand towards the window. "Scarcely visible," he said, scrutinising the
preparation. He hesitated. "Are these--alive? Are they dangerous now?"

"Those have been stained and killed," said the Bacteriologist. "I wish,
for my own part, we could kill and stain every one of them in the

"I suppose," the pale man said, with a slight smile, 'that you scarcely
care to have such things about you in the living--in the active state?"

"On the contrary, we are obliged to," said the Bacteriologist.
"Here, for instance--" He walked across the room and took up one of
several sealed tubes. "Here is the living thing. This is a cultivation of
the actual living disease bacteria." He hesitated. "Bottled cholera, so to

A slight gleam of satisfaction appeared momentarily in the face of the
pale man. "It's a deadly thing to have in your possession," he said,
devouring the little tube with his eyes. The Bacteriologist watched the
morbid pleasure in his visitor's expression. This man, who had visited him
that afternoon with a note of introduction from an old friend, interested
him from the very contrast of their dispositions. The lank black hair and
deep grey eyes, the haggard expression and nervous manner, the fitful yet
keen interest of his visitor were a novel change from the phlegmatic
deliberations of the ordinary scientific worker with whom the
Bacteriologist chiefly associated. It was perhaps natural, with a hearer
evidently so impressionable to the lethal nature of; his topic, to take
the most effective aspect of the matter.

He held the tube in his hand thoughtfully. "Yes, here is the pestilence
imprisoned. Only break such a little tube as this into a supply of
drinking-water, say to these minute particles of life that one must needs
stain and examine with the highest powers of the microscope even to see,
and that one can neither smell nor taste--say to them, 'Go forth, increase
and multiply, and replenish the cisterns,' and death--mysterious,
untraceable death, death swift and terrible, death full of pain and
indignity--would be released upon this city, and go hither and thither
seeking his victims. Here he would take the husband from the wife, here
the child from its mother, here the statesman from his duty, and here the
toiler from his trouble. He would follow the water-mains, creeping along
streets, picking out and punishing a house here and a house there where
they did not boil their drinking-water, creeping into the wells of the
mineral water makers, getting washed into salad, and lying dormant in
ices. He would wait ready to be drunk in the horse-troughs, and by unwary
children in the public fountains. He would soak into the soil, to reappear
in springs and wells at a thousand unexpected places. Once start him at
the water supply, and before we could ring him in, and catch him again,
he would have decimated the metropolis."

He stopped abruptly. He had been told rhetoric was his weakness.

"But he is quite safe here, you know--quite safe."

The pale-faced man nodded. His eyes shone. He cleared his throat. "These
Anarchist--rascals," said he, "are fools, blind fools--to use bombs when
this kind of thing is attainable. I think----"

A gentle rap, a mere light touch of the finger-nails, was heard at the
door. The Bacteriologist opened if. "Just a minute, dear," whispered his

When he re-entered the laboratory his visitor was looking at his watch. "I
had no idea I had wasted an hour of your time," he said. "Twelve minutes
to four. I ought to have left here by half-past three. But your things
were really too interesting. No, positively I cannot stop a moment longer.
I have an engagement at four."

He passed out of the room reiterating his thanks, and the Bacteriologist
accompanied him to the door, and then returned thoughtfully along the
passage to his laboratory. He was musing on the ethnology of his visitor.
Certainly the man was not a Teutonic type nor a common Latin one. "A
morbid product, anyhow, I am afraid," said the Bacteriologist to himself.
"How he gloated over those cultivations of disease germs!" A disturbing
thought struck him. He turned to the bench by the vapour bath, and then
very quickly to his writing-table. Then he felt hastily in his pockets and
then rushed to the door. "I may have put it down on the hall table," he

"Minnie!" he shouted hoarsely in the hall.

"Yes, dear," came a remote voice.

"Had I anything in my hand when I spoke to you, dear, just now?"


"Nothing, dear, because I remember----"

"Blue ruin!" cried the Bacteriologist, and incontinently ran to the front
door and down the steps of his house to the street.

Minnie, hearing the door slam violently, ran in alarm to the window. Down
the street a slender man was getting into a cab. The Bacteriologist,
hatless, and in his carpet slippers, was running and gesticulating wildly
towards this group. One slipper came off, but he did not wait for it. "He
has gone _mad_!" said Minnie; "it's that horrid science of his"; and,
opening the window, would have called after him. The slender man, suddenly
glancing round, seemed struck with the same idea of mental disorder. He
pointed hastily to the Bacteriologist, said something to the cabman, the
apron of the cab slammed, the whip swished, the horse's feet clattered,
and in a moment cab and Bacteriologist hotly in pursuit, had receded up
the vista of the roadway and disappeared round the corner.

Minnie remained straining out of the window for a minute. Then she drew
her head back into the room again. She was dumbfounded. "Of course he is
eccentric," she meditated. "But running about London--in the height of the
season, too--in his socks!" A happy thought struck her. She hastily put
her bonnet on, seized his shoes, went into the hall, took down his hat and
light overcoat from the pegs, emerged upon the doorstep, and hailed a cab
that opportunely crawled by. "Drive me up the road and round Havelock
Crescent, and see if we can find a gentleman running about in a velveteen
coat and no hat."

"Velveteen coat, ma'am, and no 'at. Very good, ma'am." And the cabman
whipped up at once in the most matter-of-fact way, as if he drove to this
address every day in his life.

Some few minutes later the little group of cabmen and loafers that
collects round the cabman's shelter at Haverstock Hill were startled by
the passing of a cab with a ginger-coloured screw of a horse, driven

They were silent as it went by, and then as it receded--"That's 'Arry
'Icks. Wot's _he_ got?" said the stout gentleman known as Old

"He's a-using his whip, he is, _to_ rights," said the ostler boy.

"Hullo!" said poor old Tommy Byles; "here's another bloomin' loonatic.
Blowed if there ain't."

"It's old George," said Old Tootles, "and he's drivin' a loonatic,
_as_ you say. Ain't he a-clawin' out of the keb? Wonder if he's after
'Arry 'Icks?"

The group round the cabman's shelter became animated. Chorus: "Go it,
George!" "It's a race." "You'll ketch 'em!" "Whip up!"

"She's a goer, she is!" said the ostler boy.

"Strike me giddy!" cried Old Tootles. "Here! _I'm_ a-goin' to begin
in a minute. Here's another comin'. If all the cabs in Hampstead ain't
gone mad this morning!"

"It's a fieldmale this time," said the ostler boy.

"She's a-followin' _him_," said Old Tootles. "Usually the other way

"What's she got in her 'and?"

"Looks like a 'igh 'at."

"What a bloomin' lark it is! Three to one on old George," said the ostler
boy. "Nexst!"

Minnie went by in a perfect roar of applause. She did not like it, but she
felt that she was doing her duty, and whirled on down Haverstock Hill and
Camden Town High Street with her eyes ever intent on the animated back
view of old George, who was driving her vagrant husband so
incomprehensibly away from her.

The man in the foremost cab sat crouched in the corner, his arms tightly
folded, and the little tube that contained such vast possibilities of
destruction gripped in his hand. His mood was a singular mixture of fear
and exultation. Chiefly he was afraid of being caught before he could
accomplish his purpose, but behind this was a vaguer but larger fear of
the awfulness of his crime. But his exultation far exceeded his fear. No
Anarchist before him had ever approached this conception of his. Ravachol,
Vaillant, all those distinguished persons whose fame he had envied
dwindled into insignificance beside him. He had only to make sure of the
water supply, and break the little tube into a reservoir. How brilliantly
he had planned it, forged the letter of introduction and got into the
laboratory, and how brilliantly he had seized his opportunity! The world
should hear of him at last. All those people who had sneered at him,
neglected him, preferred other people to him, found his company
undesirable, should consider him at last. Death, death, death! They had
always treated him as a man of no importance. All the world had been in a
conspiracy to keep him under. He would teach them yet what it is to
isolate a man. What was this familiar street? Great Saint Andrew's Street,
of course! How fared the chase? He craned out of the cab. The
Bacteriologist was scarcely fifty yards behind. That was bad. He would be
caught and stopped yet. He felt in his pocket for money, and found half a
sovereign. This he thrust up through the trap in the top of the cab into
the man's face. "More," he shouted, "if only we get away."

The money was snatched out of his hand. "Right you are," said the cabman,
and the trap slammed, and the lash lay along the glistening side of the
horse. The cab swayed, and the Anarchist, half-standing under the trap,
put the hand containing the little glass tube upon the apron to preserve
his balance. He felt the brittle thing crack, and the broken half of it
rang upon the floor of the cab. He fell back into the seat with a curse,
and stared dismally at the two or three drops of moisture on the apron.

He shuddered.

"Well, I suppose I shall be the first. _Phew!_ Anyhow, I shall be a
Martyr. That's something. But it is a filthy death, nevertheless. I wonder
if it hurts as much as they say."

Presently a thought occurred to him--he groped between his feet. A little
drop was still in the broken end of the tube, and he drank that to make
sure. It was better to make sure. At any rate, he would not fail.

Then it dawned upon him that there was no further need to escape the
Bacteriologist. In Wellington Street he told the cabman to stop, and got
out. He slipped on the step, and his head felt queer. It was rapid stuff,
this cholera poison. He waved his cabman out of existence, so to speak,
and stood on the pavement with his arms folded upon his breast awaiting
the arrival of the Bacteriologist. There was something tragic in his pose.
The sense of imminent death gave him a certain dignity. He greeted his
pursuer with a defiant laugh.

"Vive l'Anarchie! You are too late, my friend, I have drunk it. The
cholera is abroad!"

The Bacteriologist from his cab beamed curiously at him through his
spectacles. "You have drunk it! An Anarchist! I see now." He was about to
say something more, and then checked himself. A smile hung in the corner
of his mouth. He opened the apron of his cab as if to descend, at which
the Anarchist waved him a dramatic farewell and strode off towards
Waterloo Bridge, carefully jostling his infected body against as many
people as possible. The Bacteriologist was so preoccupied with the vision
of him that he scarcely manifested the slightest surprise at the
appearance of Minnie upon the pavement with his hat and shoes and
overcoat. "Very good of you to bring my things," he said, and remained
lost in contemplation of the receding figure of the Anarchist.

"You had better get in," he said, still staring. Minnie felt absolutely
convinced now that he was mad, and directed the cabman home on her own
responsibility. "Put on my shoes? Certainly, dear," said he, as the cab
began to turn, and hid the strutting black figure, now small in the
distance, from his eyes. Then suddenly something grotesque struck him, and
he laughed. Then he remarked, "It is really very serious, though.

"You see, that man came to my house to see me, and he is an Anarchist.
No--don't faint, or I cannot possibly tell you the rest. And I wanted to
astonish him, not knowing he was an Anarchist, and took up a cultivation
of that new species of Bacterium I was telling you of that infest, and I
think cause, the blue patches upon various monkeys; and, like a fool, I
said it was Asiatic cholera. And he ran away with it to poison the water
of London, and he certainly might have made things look blue for this
civilised city. And now he has swallowed it. Of course, I cannot say what
will happen, but you know it turned that kitten blue, and the three
puppies--in patches, and the sparrow--bright blue. But the bother is, I
shall have all the trouble and expense of preparing some more.

"Put on my coat on this hot day! Why? Because we might meet Mrs. Jabber.
My dear, Mrs. Jabber is not a draught. But why should I wear a coat on a
hot day because of Mrs.-----. Oh! _very_ well."

H.G. Wells